Little Italy's Feast of the Assumption was once a quaint, one-day religious festival filled with traditions from the Old Country. There was a Mass, followed by the procession of the Blessed Mother, during which parishioners pinned monetary offerings to a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Entertainment included a pole climb, in which young men would scurry up greased poles to reach a coveted prize -- a hunk of imported cheese, perhaps, or a slab of salami -- as the local women, dressed in traditional costumes, cheered them on. Ancestral songs and folkloric dances spilled into the streets in the shadow of the community church.
"In those days, the celebrations were a little more simpler and meaningful," recalls 75-year-old Rosaline Del Zoppo, a lifelong resident of Little Italy. "We had to go to church and realize it was a holy day."
Now in its 103rd year, the Feast remains a Roman Catholic celebration of Mary's assumption into heaven, but it has also grown in secular significance. Now, Catholics and non-Catholics alike flock to a jam-packed Mayfield Road for a lively three-day festival featuring carnival rides, gambling booths, an outdoor discotheque, and enough Italian food and drink to handle the appetites of the 80,000 people who attend each year.
Have all the sugar-dusted elephant ears and speakers blaring "Mambo No. 5" robbed the sanctity of the holy day? Not to Del Zoppo.
"The religious aspect is stronger than ever," she says, citing the efforts of Father Philip Racco of Our Lady of Holy Rosary Church.
Father Racco, leader of the parish for 12 years, is credited with preserving the Feast's religious integrity while opening the festivities to broader interpretation.
"Now, people understand it as a feast to celebrate the goodness of life: to eat, to dance; the music, the food, and the ethnic identity," he says. "I think people just like to stand in the streets without the cars. We're more important than the machines that drive us."